The captain commanding in part fashioned his fearsomeness through mock machismo. It underpinned a 14-year stay that supplied him a longevity surpassing any in the club’s colours since Paul McStay, and delivered greater success than any performer in green and white since Bobby Lennox. Yet as the Aberdeen-bound 36-year-old midfelder prowls a pitch for the last time as a Celtic player in the season-closer away to Hibs, it could give the lie to the term bhoys don’t cry. Certainly, his central lieutenant Callum McGregor believes hankies may require to be at the ready for the possibilities of tears.
“I think there might be,” said the club’s vice-captain. “It’s obviously an emotional situation and he’s been here for so long. There are so many boys that he’s got such a great connection with. Obviously the way everyone’s been speaking about him in the past few weeks tells you just highly the esteem the boys hold him in. I think it will be an emotional occasion. In the changing room after the game there might be a few words said. It speaks to how much everyone respects him.”
Like everything else in this pandemic world, farewells cannot be as intimate or as sociable as they would otherwise be. Even if Celtic went to town for his last hurrah at a fanless Parkhead ahead of their 4-0 win over St Johnstone one Wednesday.
“The club obviously put on stuff around the game the other night. It’s obviously a bit difficult with the covid situation as it’s hard to get everyone together in that kind of environment so it’s a wee bit difficult in that sense. The only disappointing thing is we’ve not managed to give him a proper send off in terms of a full stadium, and maybe the boys meeting up for a party. It’s pretty low key in that sense. That’s the only disappointing factor really.
“He’s not an emotional guy but in the past week I think you can see him maybe enjoying it a wee bit more than what he would normally in terms of being around the building. Today on the training ground is obviously the last day that he’ll be able to hang about with the boys and get that banter and things like that. I think that side of things has kind of settled in this week. He’s going to be a huge loss around the building. He’s always up to something and it’s going to be a quieter place without him. We’ve just tried to enjoy the past few days.”
McGregor first encountered Brown when he was a ball boy for Celtic’s Champions League win over AC Milan in October 2007. The pair have had a chuckle about that evening, and the 27-year-old relishes the professional and personal bond that has fired between them across his seven years in Celtic’s engine room.
“I had this conversation with him a couple of weeks ago about the AC Milan game. I was a ball boy and he was playing like a no.10 – almost a second striker. I was like ‘why were you playing striker in a Champions League game when you’re now playing centre-back basically?’ It was funny having that chat with him.”
Not the sort of chat, indeed, he would have had when a callow youth. “I just remember then going in to train with the squad and seeing him, as usual with just the tee-shirt on running about like a mad man setting the tone. He’d this aura about him from the first time I saw him. He just had this presence and still hands out to this day. Being a young boy you were just terrified of him. It was quite an intimidating experience. Since then I’ve obviously grown up and we’ve become a lot closer. We’ve got a great relationship on and off the pitch. That’s something I’ll cherish forever really.”
In contrast, there is nothing to cherish from this bonfire of a campaign. A season that led to a previously all-conquering Celtic becoming a charred-out competitive force when the igniting was supposed to come in the form of 10-in-a-row fireworks. If Brown will never be forgotten at Celtic, this term must be rapidly as they look to spark again following the break with a new manager – expected to be Eddie Howe – at the helm, McGregor believes.
“As footballers you try and not get too high when it’s going well and obviously when it’s not going well you try not to dwell on things as much as possible because there are always games coming and another opportunity to put things right. In the immediate sense, we have to accept what happened. We’ve not been anywhere near as good as we should have been but I think you have to put it out of your system, come back fresh in the summer and get back to the standards we had previously and get back to winning games on a regular basis. Maybe later on in your career there might be a time to look back down the lake. But when you are in the heat of the moment and in that competitive environment it’s important to put it behind you as you don’t want to start dwelling on it and then it creeps into next season as well. It’s better to draw a line under it and move on.”